St Nicholas entered Amsterdam twice last weekend.
On 17th morning,he climbed off a steamboat and then,astride a tall white horse and clad in the cloak and miter of a bishop,to the cheers of tens of thousands of children,he paraded into the centre of town accompanied by his faithful servant,Black Peter.
Well,more accurately,servants. For surrounding St Nicholas,who comes into Dutch cities every year at this time in a mix of Mardi Gras and Christmas to prepare for his feast day on December 6,abounded hundreds of Black Petes. There were Black Petes playing music or singing; Black Petes on horseback; Black Petes on stilts; and Black Petes scaling the facades of department stores or cavorting on building roofs.
Another St Nicholas arrived 16th afternoon. He sat quietly on a stage,dreadlocks flowing from under his miter,but without Black Pete. For if Black Peter is a white Netherlander in blackface,this St Nicholas was a member of the countrys Black minority,and he was presiding at a demonstration,denouncing Black Pete as racist.
The arrival of St Nicholas,known as Sinterklaas here (the Dutch carried Sinterklaas to New Amsterdam,now New York,where it later became Santa Claus),is an event in several European countries,though only in the Netherlands and parts of Belgium is he accompanied by Black Peter,or Zwarte Piet in Dutch. Portrayed by men and women in blackface make-up,Peter sports Renaissance costumes (the kind,critics say,Renaissance lords dressed their slaves in),with thick red lips and frizzy hairdo wigs or fake dreadlocks.
Black Pete is a dimwit of a singing,dancing figure. Although the Dutch pride themselves on their tolerance,they now feel that a tradition is under threat,sacrificed to political correctness. And that St Nicholas,a symbol of kindness and generosity,has become a source of division.
A Facebook page backing Black Pete gathered more than 2 million endorsements within days recently,a staggering result in a country of 17 million,even if surveys show about one-third of the population admit that Black Pete is a problem. Black Peter is black, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said recently. We cannot change that.
In October,the mayor of Amsterdam in a letter to the City Council advised it to reject a petition calling for St Nicholass parade to be cancelled,because of Black Pete.
On November 17,Patrick Winter stood with his wife and two children,5 and 4,overlooking the harbour as St Nicks steamboat,surrounded by dozens of smaller craft,entered. His wifes grandparents migrated to the Netherlands from the Dutch Caribbean islands and at first she was taken aback by the figure of Black Pete. In the end, Winter said,its a kids celebration.
Dennis de Vreede agreed. On December 5,the eve of St Nicholass feast day,he said,a St Nick he orders up online will arrive at his home,accompanied by two Black Petes. They will distribute gifts and read prepared statements he supplied beforehand about how each of his three little boys,5,4 and 3,has behaved. Its a childrens party,and children at that age dont mind, De Vreede,44,said of Black Peter.
We need to realise as adults, he went on. What are we talking about? Arent there more important problems?